Friday, April 22, 2005


Following is something I wrote for publication in another context. Some of you may recognise the influence of one M Berman.

Stop press! Marx loves capitalism!

What? You think I'm kidding?

No, really, it's true. Go back and read the Communist Manifesto again.

There, did you notice?

No? Here, let me show you.

It's in the first section, the one about "Bourgeois and Proletarians" where he says all that stuff about the history of all hitherto existing society being the history of class struggles. That's a bit of a caricature, but Marx meant something special when he wrote "history", so we'll let it go for now. The real fun begins a little further down, where we get this:

"The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part."

The bourgeoisie? But aren't they the capitalists? -- Yes, they are. Well, but didn't Marx have it in for capitalism? Wasn't he totally against it? -- Well, now, you see, the answer to that is: `yes' ...

And ... `no'.

The thing is that, in the section following on from the line quoted above, Marx elaborates a glittering tribute to the bourgeoisie. What we get here is catalogue of the triumphs and wonders of modern industry, science and technology. The bourgeoisie "has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together." Marx is gushing: "Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation" -- whole continents! -- "canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground": the bourgeoisie responsible for all this? Marx can't get enough! They way that capitalism not only revolutionises what he calls the productive forces, but actually entrenches revolution as the norm, makes him go bananas.

But it's not only the productive forces that capitalism has changed beyond recognition: as Marx notes, social relations, what he calls the relations of production, also get turned on their head. And it's here that he points out the fundamental difference between the way that modern and pre-modern societies function. Capitalism, according to Marx, has "pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors'". What he has in mind are all the old rationalisations for hierarchy and privilege; the idea that the social order which keeps you out in a cold hut looking after the pigs while I laze around in my fine castle eating pork, the idea that such an order gets God's stamp of approval, that idea is out! as soon as the bourgeoisie come on the scene.

But surely that can't be the end of the story? Of course, you're right; it's not the end of the story. Marx is also one of capitalism's most trenchant critics, and this is how we tend to think of him. What usually gets neglected is the way that he develops his criticism of capitalism out of the internal conditions of capitalism itself. Marx was a romantic and a cosmopolitan: he wasn't interested in kibbutzes. He shared with other writers of the 19th century a vision of an abundantly creative human being. What excited him about capitalism was the way it puts human development into overdrive, expanding the reach of both human needs and human capacities. But, having bought the product, he gets really annoyed when if fails to live up to the hype. And he doesn't just want a refund: he wants what he paid for. Under capitalism the needs and capacities of the human species are generalised, but the capacities of individual human beings are crippled (for Marx this is just as much the case for the capitalist bent on infinite accumulation as for the worker, bent over the machine) and their real needs go unmet. Communism, as he conceives it, would be getting what we paid for.

This then is the tragedy which Marx recounts: the tragedy of one-sided development. When he spoke of communism what he meant was that he wanted to take the broken pieces of the human being and put them together again, by giving control over the productive powers of human society back human beings themselves. Marx didn't thereby mean to change the revolutionary nature of modern production, just to change our relationship to it. Seen in this light, the problem facing Marx's vision of communism is not the failure of miserably backward and totalitarian experiments like the U. S. S. R., but rather the question of whether a society such as he envisions could be maintained against the threat of its own inner energy, or whether, in the end, the candle would burn too brightly.


At 4/22/2005 01:20:00 pm, Blogger Lemuel said...

... Or indeed, really, - not that this is much of a Dem Wahren sort of angle - whether what it was that capitalism, in general forcefully, replaced might not have been... not so bad. Franzen, again, from an interesting chapter in Strong Motion that does a bit of New World history in precis:

"Wars and Abstinence from carnall Relations, maintained a balance between Population, and what goods the land could produce. A field beeing exhausted, the Indians farmed elsewhere. Fleas becoming intolerable, the Indians moved theyre Villages. They had no use for Propertie as could not be easily transported, or easily abandoned and refashioned. And, forasmuch as they lived in a World where there was either much food or little food, and otherwose had enough Cloathes and Firewoode and Tabacco and Women to satisfy theyre needs, so they were never in a hurry. Whatever could be put off until to-morrow, was put off. There were no Rats in theyre World, no Cock-roaches, no Stinging Nettles, no Pigs or Cows, no Firearms, no Meazels, no Chicken Pox, no Small Pox, no Influenza, no Plague, no French Pox, no Typhus, no Malaria; nor Yellow Fever; nor Consumption.
"On the minus side--as Bob himself was always quick to grant--the Indians didn't have those wonderful Greek black olives. They didn't have blue cheese, or cardamoms, or the wines of Bordeaux, or violins. They had no conception of butter. Their imaginations were unenriched by Chinese porcelain, Persian illuminated manuscripts, or the idea of a midnight sleigh ride in the Russian winter. Was it perhaps worth the price of the Black Death to know that Jupiter had moons? Would a person trade The Iliad and The Odyssey for contentment and freedom from the flu? Make do without metal cookware and, with it, world history? [Contentment? Freedom from the flu? ... hmmm ... hmmm ..... yes. But of course:]
"You might as well ask whether, if she could, a person would choose never to have been born; and whether, for that matter, North America's older sister Europe herself might rather have remained in fetal Stone Age darkness."

There's a strange bit of Hasidic casuistry that runs something like: Abstractly, if God had not created our world, it would have been for the better. However, given that God did, ... and I forget the rest.


Post a Comment

<< Home